I was born in East London, South Africa to a British father and a French Huguenot and British descendant mother, and baptised at St Andrews Presbyterian Church in 1958. My parents began my real Christian nurture in the first multi-racial Presbyterian Church in South Africa, which we joined when I was four years old, because they, together with their minister, the Revd Robbie Robertson, could not reconcile segregated worship with the message of Jesus. When we moved to Kimberley when I was 12, they found another kindred spirit in the Methodist Minister, the Revd Sydney Friedland, and so we as a family became Methodists.
I attended a very mediocre state boarding school but had the privilege of coming under the influence of the Revd Canon George Pressley, my English master, who was frequently locked up because of his anti-apartheid activities. Together with the support of the school Chaplain, I ‘converted’ to the Anglican Church and felt called to ordination (and possibly the monastic life) in my penultimate year at school. I came under pressure to read law, and so did so for a year, but was more influenced by a sojourn in the Community of the Resurrection (CR), the onetime home of Trevor Huddleston, which confirmed my desire to begin the path to ordination. I moved to the University of Natal, during which time I was accepted as an Anglican ordinand. The bishop told to me to complete my degree and then do compulsory military service first, and then return for further vocational advice. I found this a bit strange and disappointing, because I was hoping for some advice as to how, as a Christian, I could deal with the crisis of conscience military service under an apartheid government, presented!
A very effective way of deferring national service was to be a registered full-time student. I had met Trish at an Anglican / Methodist youth group, and we had decided to get married. Trish is a cradle Methodist raised in a family where all people were accepted without reservation and so experienced much of Asian African as well as the traditional Zulu culture of Natal. Her Father was a fluent Zulu speaker and was much loved by these people.
On graduating, I explored the possibility of a vocation as a teacher before ordination, as I saw the importance of education in the liberation of the people. In addition, if I trained as a teacher, I was offered a bursary which was just enough for us to live on, and so I completed a diploma in education specialising in History, Biblical Studies and Religious Education. I was then invited to do a postgraduate history degree, which meant deferring military service for yet another year. By now, Trish had qualified as a teacher and was able to support us, even though, as a married woman, she was never allowed to hold a permanent position and earned significantly less than any male teacher with the same qualification!
On completion of this degree, I planned to continue with further post-graduate work, but was refused deferment and landed up in the training unit for officers in the Military Intelligence Corps. After some abuse during basic, second and third phase military training, I refused a commission and was eventually allowed to work as a social worker in a poverty stricken Griqua and so-called ‘Coloured’ community, as a non-combatant. While here I was licensed as a sub-deacon in the Anglican church and began to preach reasonably regularly. On completion of National Service, I returned to the Church for vocational advice, but found my ministry fulfilling as a school teacher and lay minister in the Church, and so was happy to wait. However, I became increasingly uncomfortable as history teacher especially teaching exam classes, because of the pro-apartheid propaganda that was so central to the syllabus. As a result, I left teaching and worked with an archaeologist researching Zulu history on a contract. I briefly returned to my alma mater teaching RE and non-examined History, until I was invited to be head of the History division of a research institute associated to Rhodes University in Grahamstown. My new employers encouraged me to publish my misgivings about the schools’ history syllabuses, and to do research into the Xhosa leadership in the region from the late Iron Age to the release of Nelson Mandela (leading to two minor volumes). While doing this, I also worked on a thesis on Methodist and Anglican mission history and theology (eventually graduating with a Master of Theology degree) and felt drawn back into the Methodist fold.
….This led me to being accepted as a Local Preacher on the Full Plan, and my Superintendent Minister, the Revd Dr Arthur Atwell, refusing to accept my excuses for delaying ordination any further. I completed the candidate’s examinations and was appointed as a Probationer Minister in the Jeffreys Bay and Humansdorp societies of the Port Elizabeth West Methodist Circuit. Here, I ministered to many people in ‘mixed’ marriages, i.e. Afrikaners married to English speakers, where the former found the Anglican Church too ‘Catholic’ and the latter, the Dutch Reformed Church (DRC) too ‘conservative’. Being fluent in Afrikaans at the time meant that I was warmly received by both communities, sometimes even taking services in Afrikaans in the DRC. While here, I was invited to chair the local Peace Committee. This committee organised hustings and trained conflict resolution counsellors in preparation for the first democratic elections, where I was one of the Peace Monitors. Once democracy had dawned, I felt free to move ‘home’ to the UK, my minor role challenging apartheid now being completed.
I never imagined that the church culture would be so different in the UK and needed time to reflect on my calling, and so withdrew from ministry and was appointed Lay Chaplain to Oswestry School and eventually also head of History and Religion and Philosophy. The Church kindly took me under its wing again and I was encouraged to return to the fold and was ordained as a Minister in Sector Appointment in York Minster in 1998 (with Jenny Dyer). The great joy of this time was the birth of our only child, Gareth.
By this time, I began to feel very much more at home in the British system and began considering a return to Circuit ministry. But it was also a time of serious illness, firstly Meniere’s Disease which has left me deaf in the left ear and a pancreatic tumour leading to 11 hours of surgery and a reconstructed digestive system, in 2001. I was advised at the time, that Circuits would find it difficult to offer me an invitation because of my health condition, and so I continued as a Chaplain and teacher. By this time, I had moved from Oswestry to Oxford (The Dragon School) and eventually to Taunton School (a Congregational / Baptist foundation). Here I was needed to redeem Religious Studies that had not been examined for over 13 years, and to assist with the introduction of the International Baccalaureate (IB) with its Theory of Knowledge (ToK) (basic epistemology) and secular philosophy courses.
When I felt it time to move, the position at Loughborough became available and offered us the opportunity to give Gareth a multi-faith, multi-cultural understanding that is ‘normal’ (as opposed to my South African experience).
Apartheid, abuse, deafness and serious illness all provided me with the need to do serious theological reflection, because, on the surface it makes little (sometimes no) sense. During the lengthy recovery from the tumour, which thankfully turned out to be benign, I realised that much of the theology of my youth was seriously lacking. This is when I decided to read those with whom I thought or was told to disagree with. And the experience set me free to explore the wonders of contemporary as well as ancient theology.
While at Loughborough Grammar School I worked closely with the Headmaster, Paul Fisher (a liberal lay Roman Catholic), on a project entitled The Spirit of the School. This was based on the published work of Professor Julian Stern, and calls for an inclusive theology of education. The journey was both enriching and with the best practical results in uplifting the ‘spirit’ of the school. The programme is largely based on the principles of strong inclusion, where differences are celebrated rather than merely tolerated. The focus revolves around the quality of relationships, inspired by Martin Buber’s ‘I – Thou’, where all are treated as ‘thou’ because they are of immeasurable value as being in the image of God, and never ‘I – It’ where people are used to achieve some particular end.
And now finally, my work in schools is done, and I feel free to return to Circuit ministry. While I have maintained a regular circuit preaching ministry throughout my time as a Chaplain, I very much look forward to the privilege of sharing in the journeys of the people of God called Methodists in the Derby Circuit as we get to know each other pastorally, enjoy prayer and fellowship, study the Scriptures and share in the sacraments together.